Movie Reviews Index

Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America (2005)


Rating: 4 Stars

D: Douglas Buck. David Thornton, Nica Ray, Gary Bettsworth, Sally Conway, William Stone Mahoney. 103 mins. DVD (Image Entertainment) 2/06

When Abel (Bad Lieutenant) Ferrara and Gaspar (Irreversible) Noe write that a film is "disturbing," viewer take heed. That's exactly what those two auteurs have called Buck's utterly unique and horrific work. Family Portraits started life as three separate shorts—Cutting Moments, Home and Prologue—and have been anthologized in a fabulous DVD presentation. Buck vigorously worked the international film festival circuit and developed the shorts over the course of eight years; watching the films back to back, we see the development of a very special vision. This is heavy praise but totally merited—there is no other filmmaker like this guy. Take Cutting Moments (1996), perhaps the most controversial of the three. Mom, Dad, 10—year—old son, suburban ranch house. The atmosphere drips with dread and impending doom. Within moments, Mom is in the bathroom graphically mutilating herself, cutting off her lips; Dad joins in with the garden shears on her other body parts. We're talking graphic here (Tom Savini was the effects supervisor) but the all—pervading tone of the piece comes from the characters' deep, abiding, palpable emotional pain. Home (1998) continues Buck's portrayal of family dysfunction, chronicling the life of an average working stiff who gets up one day and chops his wife and daughter into little pieces. As in all three films, the tone is low—key, almost mellow and matter—of—fact, making the pained faces downright scary: Cassavetes and Bergman meet Herschell Gordon Lewis. Prologue (2004) is the most ambitious of the three and the most indebted to Bergman with its wintry farm community setting. Again, mutilation plays a key part, as a teenage girl tries to adjust to "normal" life after having been brutalized by a local man who severed her hands and feet. Detail builds upon detail in a concise and precise way, and we can see that the director has also become more assured with his actors (the wonderful David Thornton plays the girl's father). The three shorts share the common theme of the very concept of family and all that implies (safety, security, love) gone terribly wrong and make for cohesive—and very frightening—viewing. The DVD is loaded with extras. Buck does commentary on each film, joined by critic/author Douglas E. Winter and film professors John Freitas and Marc Lapadula; the original screenplays and trailers are included, along with behind—the—scenes featurettes, production stills, and liner notes by novelist Peter (Ghost Story) Straub and director Larry (Wendigo) Fessenden. On a cinematic level, it is fascinating to witness the growth of Buck's directorial skill over the past decade. Another "rogue auteur" has been born, and producer Edward Pressman has recognized his talents—Buck is currently directing a remake of Brian De Palma's Sisters, starring Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Rea. It should be quite a film; while you're waiting, scope out Family Portraits.

~ John Gallagher